Lieberman Probes Interior Commitment To Protect Wilderness

WASHINGTON – In a continuing effort to oversee protection of the nation’s undeveloped public lands, Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Thursday pressed the Bush Administration on the fate of millions of acres throughout the west with wilderness characteristics.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Lieberman sought details on the department’s efforts to safeguard the lands, which – because of an April 2003 settlement between Interior and the state of Utah – are prohibited from being designated as new wilderness study areas. At the time of the settlement, Administration officials stated they would nevertheless seek to manage many areas as if they were wilderness.

“However, to date there is no visible evidence of efforts by the administration to insure protection of these valuable areas, suggesting that these statements were little more than illusory promises,” Lieberman wrote in his letter, dated August 14, 2003.

He said wilderness areas are valuable because they “retain their primeval character, and are valued for their solitude. They contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value. They help support life on this earth, sustaining and protecting natural resources, watersheds, biodiversity and endangered species, and they provide ecological services, such as carbon sequestration, natural pest control, nutrient cycling and pollution absorption.”

Interior issued a statement around the time of the April settlement indicating it “fully anticipates that many areas will be managed in their natural state to preserve wilderness characteristics.” The Department said it would rely on the planning process followed by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency within Interior, to address these management issues. But revising land management plans is a slow and cumbersome process, Lieberman said, and the BLM appears to have neither the staff nor the resources to take on this additional work.

In addition, neither the Department of Interior nor the Bureau of Land Management has issued new policies regarding the protection of areas with wilderness characteristics to replace those eliminated because of the Utah settlement.

“As a result,” Lieberman wrote, “field staff lack direction regarding the priority for and manner of protecting these lands. This inaction contrasts starkly with the clear direction and priority BLM’s Washington office has provided regarding the integration of energy development into the planning process.”

Last month, Lieberman asked Norton to share with the public the Department’s behind-the-scenes activities regarding highway construction through millions of acres of federal land, including wilderness lands.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is charged with studying and investigating the efficiency, operations and management of all branches of Government. Throughout his tenure as both Chairman and Ranking Member on the Committee, Lieberman has sought to ensure that the Executive Branch appropriately implements and complies with governing environmental requirements.